Holy smokes, Batman! The most unlikely fun performance car of the year from a most unlikely origin
What is it?
When you think of Hyundai, and specifically the Elantra, what do you imagine? If you’re picturing a cheap day-rate option at the local Enterprise with coffee-stained seats, you’re not alone. However, append the letter N and we’re in another level of the multiverse; In this new reality, an Elantra might just be the most fun to drive car under $40,000. Yes, that’s a resolute, sweeping declaration, but there is enough to easily reinforce the notion of Elantra the Conqueror.
I have not smiled this much in a new car for quite some time. Driving mundane commuters and SUVs dull the experience and excitement of testing cars, so when you receive a manual transmission performance vehicle, the senses can seem exaggerated, but that’s not the case here; The hype is real. Only when I tested the significantly pricier Honda Civic Type R later did I have something to trump the N, but pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the Elantra N is just so compulsively compelling.
Power comes from a turbocharged 2-liter inline-four, also found in other Hyundais like the Veloster N and Kona N hot hatches. Rated for 276 horsepower and powering only the front wheels through a manual gearbox (a dual-clutch automatic is an option for those who prefer less fun), this is a firecracker when you start behaving irresponsibly. Power is strong from even down low in the rev range before building to a towering plateau from the midrange to redline without any significant falloff that small turbos typically suffer from. Get it right, and you can launch the Elantra N to 60 MPH from rest in about 5.2 seconds , though you will have to combat some wheelspin and torquesteer that never detract from the experience, but rather lend some excitement and flair. It’s not the next hot thing for drag racing, but it’s just enough fun to provide some real thrills in the real world on real roads.
However, having power is not what makes the Elantra N special and unique. For example, a similarly-priced VW Golf GTI is just about as quick and does so with less fuss from a more sophisticated front axle. The charm of the Elantra N comes from the chassis underneath, exemplifying all that made their Veloster N great, but in an exceedingly usable package.
Confidence means it can sometimes be too easy to get carried away, but when you do, you’ll be glad you did. Approach any corner at seemingly endless velocity, look towards the apex, and suddenly you find yourself right there and ready to plant your right foot to the floor to carry you to your exit. Rinse, repeat. Following in the footsteps of the Veloster N, this Elantra has steering that shames most actual sports cars with some decently useful information, tenacious grip from all tires, and complete abstinence from understeer. Instead of the front pushing and washing away, a trait of front-wheel drive cars since the dawn of time, the Elantra N is mechanically clever enough to drown that stereotype. Hyundai calls their magic front differential, and I kid you not, the N Corner Carving electronic LSD. Whatever crap name given, it works when carving corners. But it’s not the front that’s fancy, with a sophisticated multi-link rear design that lets the two ends communicate in constant agreement. In quick direction changes, responses are complete and instant from both ends, and with little body roll. If you want to really punish the road, you can switch the dampers into their aggressive track setting for greater control at the expense of your ride quality and back.
14.2″ front brakes impress, too, with a strong and firm feel, but without track time, I can’t say how long they can keep up full clamping force when pushed for prolonged periods. Also contributing to one’s mastery of the Elantra N are supportive bucket seats in the front that, while not quite as impressive as the red units in a Civic Type R, are great inclusions at this price bracket.
Gas mileage is even worth bragging about here, averaging a respectable 26 MPG during my week with the car in normal driving conditions. Driven with intent, that number will decrease as you build boost, but in sedate driving, this can fundamentally work as a convincing commuter and climbs to over 30 MPG on the freeway.
The price, considered together with the positives above, is the sealing factor that makes the Elantra N the standout performance car it is in such convincing fashion. Price at about $34,500 as equipped, there’s nothing else for less money that is as fun on demanding and beckoning roads. Not even a Toyota GR86, mind you. A Golf GTI with the desired options will run you a little bit more, is maybe a little quicker in a straight line, and is more comfortable, but even a fun car like is a dull doldrum when compared to the elite Elantra N.
As much as I adored our time together, Elantra N does have some drawbacks that must be noted for consideration. While the manual transmission is such a welcome option and fun to use, the action of the shifter doesn’t quite have the NASA-grade precision nor feedback that cars like the Civic Type R or any new 6-speed manual Porsche have. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just not as good as the best of the best. Clutch action is light and makes the Elantra N superbly easy to drive from initial meeting, but enthusiasts might prefer some extra weighting there as well. A solid transmission, but I’m only putting this here because a Civic Type R, albeit a more expensive hot hatch, does beat it here.
Do not go into this thinking that the Elantra N is a nicely furnished car, because it’s not. To keep the price so attractive, corners were cut, hence the abundance of hard and cheap plastics in the interior. At least the seats are great, and the wheel has nice leather, but the rest is convincingly ‘rental-grade.’ Strictly economy, but it’s a compromise many might be worth taking in exchange for the low price and performance offered instead.
Aesthetics are a matter of subjective taste, but most would collectively agree that none of the new Elantras are exactly pretty machines. The Elantra is better with its spiced up additions, but the engulfing black grille that seems to act like a black hole for the frontal area and the chiseled door treatment might not be for all. There is no getting around the shear intent from the visuals, and it does exude proper aggression for a performance car, but it’s just not a pretty one. At least it is far from boring.
Using the full-fat N mode can be abusive on public roads thanks to harsh suspension when set to their stiffest setting. Luckily, you can design your own custom modes, but many casual drivers will be led to believe the N-mode is best because, well, it must be – it’s called N-mode after all – don’t you want to be cool? But really, you’re just making the car purposely uncomfortable. Further, N mode makes the exhaust quite loud, and while it’s not a bad sound at all, there are too many burbles and pops that many (including your neighbor) may find an irritant . In fact, the standard exhaust is so loud in this mode that an owner famously was pulled over and told to have their vehicle’s exhaust turned back to stock, even though it was the factory OEM exhaust; Be warned and use at your discretion, and I would recommend using custom modes for different driving scenarios.
A knockout hit with unbeatable value
There’s no shying away from the fact the Hyundai Elantra N is a brilliant performance car at a price so hard to ignore. Really, the next step up for a front-drive (or really any kind of performance car) car would be a Civic Type R or a Camaro SS, but you’ll need at least another ten-thousand(!) dollars to do so. And it’s not like this ‘good for front-wheel drive.’ No, not at all. I reckon the Elantra N is an overall more fun package and driving experience than even the Toyota GR86 and Subaru BRZ twins. Sacrilege? Who cares. The Elantra N is the fantastic and affordable performance car we didn’t know we needed.
2023 Hyundai Elantra N
As-tested price: c.$34,500
Pros: Outrageously fun; Properly capable; Price
Cons: Looks not for everyone
For more automotive and motorsports coverage from Mitchell Weitzman, visit www.TheRoadBeat.com.
2023 Hyundai Elantra N review photos by Mitchell Weitzman, The Road Beat
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